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Bespoken Word: The art of testing

Bespoken Word: Art of Testing
(Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Last week I went off on one about how bike - and product testing - is basically one big algorithm where each component part and their interrelation in space as defined by bike geometry are the algebra that produces the final sum of performance.

As unexciting as that sounds that’s the basic truth too, as every single performance aspect of every component has an associated number. Whether that’s the tensile behavior of a particular carbon TOW, the hysteresis of a tire or the viscosity of a damping oil, somebody smart somewhere will be able to put a series of digits to it. But for every one of those numbers, there’s a whole series of associated numbers that expand off it. That carbon TOW will be in a layering schedule of different layers and plys at different angles. It will be held together by a specific resin that’s been compressed to a specific pressure at a deliberate temperature. Well that’s the theory at least but even TOWs aren’t consistent between batches due to all sorts of factors from the initial creation, through to processing, bundling, storage and even damage that can happen in transport. The resin will have variables caused by fluctuations in temperature or penetration into the weave. The different layers are hand-laid which adds a whole extra level of human randomness and the mandrels, molds and airbags all add a variable too. In other words, what comes out of the autoclave has been exposed to all sorts of vectors and skews before you even start bolting components on. You’re then operating them at different angles, speeds and impact intensities between a constantly varying ground surface and a big lump of emotional meat.

Emotionally available

And that’s where the other big, non-algebraic, aspect of testing comes in. Emotion. Or at least I hope it does as I find bike reviews that are flat, paint by numbers run through of constituent parts a bit dull and uninspiring. That’s not to say they aren’t accurate - by very definition hyperbole, anecdote and emotive language add color, not data - but there’s a big difference between a technical drawing and a picture of something in action. So while what I do is inextricably based on numbers and engineering I see my job as conveying the character of whatever bikes and bits I’m reviewing so riders can engage with them - or not - contextually, colorfully and ultimately as entertainment, or infotainment if you think that’s a proper word. After all, the vast number of people reading or watching a review probably won’t buy that bike, but hopefully they’ll still enjoy reading/watching the review.

Obviously, not every review lends itself to this treatment. I’ve spent most of this week stabbing various sized screwdrivers into a tire to see how fast different tubeless sealants can seal - or not - wounds from 1mm round to a gouging 3x8mm. There’s an undeniable temptation to slip a bit of innuendo in there, in fact it’s almost impossible to fill a spreadsheet with verbs such as spurting, leaking, squirting, pumping, thrusting, stabbing and mopping up without some sort of snigger creeping in. Especially when the workshop is left looking like a crime scene from a sordid Las Vegas motel. But I will try and rise above that when the words coagulate into a printable format and just try and raise a smile by my choice of tire for the repeated attacks: A Specialized Butcher.

Bespoken Word: Art of Testing

A butchered Butcher (Image credit: Guy Kesteven)

Once you start relating how something performs relative to its environment you can not only add color and context but also vital connection. Even when I was just writing for national magazines and websites I generally stopped short of referring to a specific corner or track because the percentage chance of people knowing what I meant is pretty slim. If you say that a particularly thin sidewall of a tire isn’t ideal for somewhere savage and rocky like the Peak or Lake Districts though or one that cuts easily won’t do well on the flints of the South Downs is allowable though and sounds authentic even in truth you’ve only ever ridden the South Downs twice in your whole life.

Berms, boulder fields, baby head rocks, G-Outs, flat-faced rock slaps or crawling crux moves on loose climbs are all a universal language though. The picture I have in my head when writing might have a very different deciduous wooded or heather moorland backdrop to the mountain pines or scorched desert landscape around yours, but at that point of ground-to-bike connection we share a language. As long as I can tell you how that bike or tire or suspension kinematic will feel in that instance you can transpose it to your trails and start piecing together the whole picture of how the bike will ride. Whether it will thud or skip. Slice and carve or smear and twang. Whether it will encourage you to just stand up and charge a climb or you’ll have automatically downshifted and surrendered before you even realize it. If a designer has managed to make a bike that has you straining your eyes to the lip of your peak, searching for the exit as you rip a berm, let’s celebrate that. If you’re more likely to be staring at the front wheel in short staining terror then let’s make the warning memorable. But in each case back it up with the science of why that’s happening. If it’s a group test or there’s an obvious competitor that enough people will have experience of to be relevant, benchmark and template against that, because showing the breadth of your experience always adds confidence in the readers. If you really want to list the settings you ended up with to show how thorough you were at counting clicks, although to be honest I only tend to do this if it’s way off the recommended settings or illustrates that at my weight with my style I’m at one extreme of the adjustment or another.  

It’s good to add in real-time indicators where relevant too. Such as how far you can expect to get down that stepped descent at pace before the fork starts to cough up control and whether braking will have no effect or completely choke the stroke. If there’s a stiff bar, plasticky tire carcass, solid grips and girder frame involved too I might be tempted to go beyond “jarring” for an outlandish statement like ‘wrist breaking’ or ‘tooth rattling’ despite knowing full well that just riding even the cheapest, jankiest hardtail down some steps is unlikely to ever shatter a scaphoid or dislodge a molar. At least not until you hit the ground. Hell, I’ll even defend that time I wrote that the Avid Ultimate V brakes on a Cannondale Raven were so accurate and feedback-rich that I could feel the individual knobs of an IRC Mythos tire biting through the cartridge bearing mounted lever blades.

If it sounds fun to ride, it probably is

Because riding is a very involving, emotional experience that tends to make us giddy and potentially obsessive about even the smallest detail great bikes are great fun to write about too. I once read Mike Levy describing a bike as both as solid as an Abrams tank but also feeling like it wanted to do donuts in a car park. Ridiculous from a sober, comparative point of view but absolutely brilliant in terms of creating that image of a 67 and a half ton tank spinning in rowdy circles just for the hell of it and perfectly incapsulating how that bike could make you feel on the trail. At the other end of the spectrum, I can remember showboating around the moors all day with a group of riders on a brand new first-generation Santa Cruz Nomad. Marveling at the radically curvaceous hydroformed alloy mainframe until one of the group waited for a quiet moment and muttered the infamous comment. “You know what that bike looks like? A dog having a shit.” On a similar tip I used to get my daughters to help me test nutrition products and to be honest I’ve never quite looked at a particularly popular energy bar the same since Honor described one as looking ‘like what you’d find on your shoe if you took a vegan dog for a walk.’

And while singling out products for the more colorful character assassinations is asking for angry letters from those slurred, it definitely breaks up the monotony for readers and writers. Because - and I know I go on about this, but I’m old and I haven’t fought in any wars to go on about - I’ve literally written millions of words about bikes, it gets pretty hard to think of new ways to describe them, without getting a bit silly sometimes. And while I’ve only ever seen one online forum petition to stop me using my particular favorite “cut and paste agility” cliche it’s really hard not to repeat or just fail to differentiate if you don’t let a bit of artistic license slip into that testing algorithm.

And besides, the other hidden but very useful side of this emotive equation is that the bikes that don’t inspire generally don’t come out as inspiring on the page, purely because there’s no enthusiasm or emotion bubbling through my brain as I try and convey how they ride on paper.

And I guess that’s the bottom line really. If I’ve done my job right then if a bike sounds like it’s going to be a riot for you to ride then it probably is and if the numbers and algebra add up as well, then happy days.